STEEPLECHASE CHAMPIONS negotiate more complex routes than most runners to claim their titles and even for a steeplechaser Hillary Bor’s path has been exceptionally variegated.
Bor, 32, is the men’s steeple favorite for the upcoming USATF Champs, and with good reason. He won the last two national crowns, U.S.-Ranked No. 1 the past two seasons (there were no Rankings for pandemic ’20) and World Ranked No. 8 in ’18 and No. 6 in ’19, the season in which he picked up a World Champs 8th. At Rio ’16, his first global major, Bor was the Olympic 7th-place finisher.
Kenyan-born and veteran of an 8-year U.S. Army hitch he finished up in ’20, Bor has been the man to beat on these shores ever since AR holder Evan Jager’s injury troubles cropped up in ’19.
At any number of crossroads along his winding way Bor might have taken a different path. His route to steepling’s elite ranks began on the paths and rural roads around his home village near Kapsabet.
“As a boy I had to care for the animals,” Bor explains, describing the herding of his family’s farm flock back and forth to fields where they grazed.
“In the fields we always looked for things to do and we held our own competitions,” he says. Anyone who’s been a kid knows games of this type, race-ya-to-that-tree kinda stuff. Bor, however, remembers taking particular pleasure in makeshift long and triple jump comps.
“The reason why I have the best water jump is because of my history with the long jump and triple jump,” Bor told the media last summer after starting his drive to the OT win at the penultimate pit full of wet stuff. “If you see, I can finish the race without touching the water, so having the background of doing the long jump and triple jump made me a really good steeplechaser.”
As Bor grew older he proved himself adept enough as a bounder to win a District long jump title. However, he followed Kenyan tracksters’ on the world stage, as well.
“My favorite athlete” Bor remembers, “was Ezekiel Kemboi,” he of two Olympic golds (’04 & ’12) and four world titles (’09, ’11, ’13 & ’15). In the steeple, of course, the perennial Kenyan fortress event.
Advised by coaches to give the barrier race a whirl, Bor did and soon found himself on the radar of U.S. collegiate recruiters. By the fall of ’07 he was racing cross country for Iowa State. Older brother Emmanuel had begun his own career at Alabama a year earlier and won the SEC Indoor mile in ’07. Another brother, Julius, was competing for Cloud County at the JUCO level, and would soon also don the jersey of the Crimson Tide.
That Hillary landed in Ames was not entirely coincidental as his uncle, Barnaba Korir, had captured 6 Big 8 titles as a Cyclone and earned All-American status three times, twice in cross country and once placing 5th in the ’87 NCAA 500.
With family tradition in full effect, Bor placed 4th in the NCAA steeple of ’08, 2nd in ’09, 3rd in ’10 and 12th as a senior in ’11. He finished his Cyclones career with a modest PR of 8:35.12 from that ’09 NCAA final.
From there he headed to New Mexico State to pursue a Masters — until Uncle Sam came calling a couple years later.
“I joined the Army,” Bor explains. “It was my path to U.S. citizenship, which I really wanted to get.” He joined up in ’13, and brother Julius, too, became a U.S. soldier.
Bor had run 8:36.44 in a short ’12 season and PRed with 8:32.41 at the ’13 Payton Jordan meet, but when he enlisted he considered his running a sideline to his career as a soldier, in which he eventually found his place as a financial analyst.
“After I retire from running, I’d like to go back to that kind of work,” he says, “as a civilian with the Defense Department.”
Bor was eventually identified as a candidate for the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). His move in that direction began, he says, when as part of a general soldier’s regimen, “I ran 9:50 for 2M at altitude in Colorado.”
At first the Army granted him some time during his day to train, and next IDed him as a candidate to represent the service arm in international competition. Though he DNFed the steeple final at his first USATF nationals in ’15, Bor was selected for the World Military Games in South Korea that fall. He placed 8th in the steeple.
The following February, he faced a decision. “My unit was scheduled to ship out for Afghanistan,” he says, “and my brother was also in my unit.”
Army protocol prohibits siblings from serving together in combat zones so either Hillary or Julius would remain in Colorado.
“My brother told me, ‘I’ll go. You stay here and train for the Olympics,’” Bor explains.
If your brother opts for a combat zone to afford you a shot at the Rings, that just might be motivational. It certainly was for Bor.
Fifth at the bell in the OT final and with Jager primed to win his fifth straight USA title, Bor cut loose of three others on the final circuit, flew over the final water jump in 2nd and held it to the finish. His 62.13 last lap was fastest in the field and his 8:24.10 time an apparent PR until it was discovered one barrier had been set too low.
Bor’s placing counted, however, and he was now an Olympian. “I didn’t believe I’d make this team,” he declared. “I just came here for fun.” Into the bargain, he reached the final in Rio.
Julius Bor, by the way, rotated back Stateside from Afghanistan in time. “Oh, yeah. He came home and he’s doing well,” says Hillary.
Other brother Emmanuel, you may have noticed, continues to race, and race well. He placed 5th in the ’21 OT 5000, 10th in the 10,000, and in the recent 10K WC Trials race he placed 8th.
Coached by Scott Simmons in the powerful American Distance Project group that includes Paul Chelimo, Hillary signed on for 4 more years of Army service with an improved Olympic placing in Tokyo his No. 1 goal.
His times kept coming down — 8:25.01 in his Rio heat, 8:22.74 in the final, 8:13.68 in Brussels three weeks later. Bor improved his best to 8:11.82 in ’17 and 8:08.41 in ’19. His Worlds 8th that year showed him to be on course.
“But then came 2020 and the pandemic,” Bor says ruefully. “By the time we really understood there wasn’t going to be a season, I had nothing else to do so I just kept training. Too hard for too long. I had no races to break it up.
“Looking back, I understand I came into the 2021 Olympic season fatigued. By the time we got to June and the Trials I knew I had pushed myself too hard. It was too late, there was nothing to do but push through it.
“I think the same thing happened to Emma Coburn.”
“That was tough,” he says. “My goal for 5 years had been to improve on my finish in Rio.”
He vowed to avoid a repeat this season. Bor says, “I delayed my specialized training to remain fresh into July and August.” He raced once indoors, a 13:10.98 PR at the Hemery Valentine meet in Boston.
Outdoors he opened at the Doha DL with 8:17.82 for 4th on a windy evening. He will compete in the Rabat and Rome DLs to get race sharp for the World Champs Trials.
“There is no substitute for racing to prepare for the steeplechase,” he says. “I intend to defend my title.”
Bor likes his chances though he admits he, in one sense, misses the predictability of Jager’s 7 years of dominance at the U.S. title meet.
“There’s a big difference in the USATF final depending who has the [Worlds Q] standard,” he says. “It was easy when Evan Jager was running well. You knew he would lead and wind it up in the last 3 laps.”
Jager, as any true steeple fan knows by heart, raced to silver in Rio and bronze at the ’17 Worlds. He won the ’17 and ’18 U.S. crowns and hit the second fastest clocking of his life, 8:01.02 at the ’18 Monaco DL. Soon after he endured more than 3½ years in an injury wilderness. First a fall in Zürich, then the diagnosis of a stress fracture in his foot and a late calf injury that held him out of last summer’s Trials.
Jager is steepling again. He busted rust at Mt. SAC, placing 2nd in that outing, and ran well in it at the recent USATF Distance Classic until he two-footed his last water jump landing, lost momentum for the run-in and recorded an 8:27.88 clocking, short of the 8:22.00 Worlds Q time.
“You can’t count out a man who’s run 8-flat, an Olympic silver medalist,” says Bor. “I believe he can make it back.”
To claim a ninth USATF win, however, Jager will need to get past Hillary Bor, whose road has been winding, indeed.